Ten years ago, the world encountered a new strain of Islamophobia. Overnight, it mutated from annoying virus to bitter plague. September 11, 2001 brought on unimaginable death and destruction, and unfortunately, the public's response led to more collateral damage than many Americans realize. That day, millions of innocent Muslim-Americans became political prisoners. Whether we cared about politics or not, we were immediately pulled into the center of a political debate that had nothing to do with who we were as Muslim-Americans and everything to do with the actions of a handful of misguided zealots who had hijacked both our country and our religion.
I graduated college a few months before 9/11 and immediately moved to Manhattan. I worked as a waitress and studied for the Law School Admission Test while my future husband worked as an investment banker in lower Manhattan. We were happy and carefree. To a girl who had spent most of her life in Ohio, New York was more intoxicating than any opiate. I'd never seen anything like it, and I reveled at the prospect of spending an entire year there.
But my year was cut short. My fiancé and I were visiting my parents in Ohio when the planes hit the World Trade Center, and we watched in horror. We frantically called to check on friends, only to encounter maddening busy signals. We cried and bought an American flag to hang outside the house. My mother, having lived through Iran's Islamic Revolution, was convinced she was experiencing some twisted rerun. "This is just like the revolution," she kept saying in Farsi. She was obsessed with deciding how to pack for our imminent departure. We tried to calm her down, telling her all the ways that this was nothing like the revolution. But panic had taken hold, and there was no reasoning with her. For her, the reality of the situation was no match for the weight of memory.
Within a few days she realized that we wouldn't have to flee. But we would have to face a new onslaught of hatred and bigotry. I can't tell you how many times each of us has heard the trite refrain: "Go back to your country." It became exhausting: constantly clarifying that we were Americans, only to be immediately dismissed as frauds and imposters.
Upon returning to New York a few days after the devastation, we were instantly assaulted by a stench that I will never forget. My husband-to-be's downtown apartment was uninhabitable, and soon after, he lost his job. With each new report of anthrax, we grew increasingly nervous about breathing the air, and around every corner, I ran into hateful comments about my faith, about me. Now, over a billion people would have to suffer. All because of a few frauds, a few imposters.
On this mournful anniversary, I pray to one day spend an uneventful year in New York -- without the disaster, without the stench, without the hate.